How to better support students with disabilities in schools
The committee received numerous suggestions from submitters and
witnesses on what, other than increased funding, could be done to better
support Australian students with disability in the school system. While funding
is of critical importance, it is not the only block for students with
disability in the school system. This chapter will outline some key ideas and
debates highlighted through this inquiry.
Mainstream inclusion v. special schools
One of the most prominent debates regarding the education of students
with disabilities is the question of which sort of education produces the best
outcomes for students: inclusion in 'mainstream' schools or classes or via
While this debate is largely about issues other than funding, it is
worth noting that there is a disparity in terms of funding of students with
disability depending on which type of school they attend:
Students with disability at a mainstream school attract a
students with disability loading of 186 per cent of the base per student
amount; those at a special school attract a students with disability loading of
223 per cent.
Approximately 90 per cent of students with disability in Australia attend
Inclusive education refers to the philosophy of not just enrolling
students with disability into mainstream classrooms but about designing
education environments and teaching strategies to include all students.
Students with disability may require additional adjustments, tied to the
specific needs of individuals, but the teaching approaches employed in a
genuinely inclusive classroom should benefit all children.
As will be discussed further below, research in the area has consistently
shown that best-practice teaching for students with disability is in fact
best-practice teaching for all students.
Dr Kathy Cologon, of the Children and Families Research Centre in the
Institute of Early Childhood at Macquarie University noted that the weight of
evidence is firmly on the side of mainstream inclusion:
... inclusive education is important because it results in the
best possible outcomes for everyone involved. As outlined in a recent extensive
review of the literature, inclusive education results in more positive outcomes
for all students – students who do and students who do not experience
disability... Inclusive education also results in greater personal and
professional satisfaction for educators and assists educators in becoming more
skilled and flexible as they expand their ability to provide multiple forms and
modes of engagement, thus leading to higher quality education for all students.
However, other submitters just as firmly advocate for attendance at
special schools, wherein students can be taught in purpose-built environments,
by teachers specialising in the education of students with disability and
amongst a class of other students with disability.
One of the primary drivers of families choosing to enrol their child in
a special school is a consequence of the practice, discussed in chapter 2 of
this report, of informal gatekeepers at mainstream schools discouraging the
enrolment of students with disability on the ground that the school would be
unable to properly accommodate that child's needs.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics' 2012 Survey of Disability Ageing
and Carers (SDAC) found that for students with profound or severe disability,
those attending mainstream schools received significantly less support than
students with the same level of disability in special schools.
The choice of which school to enrol a child in is one of the main
decisions parents have to make, and the committee notes that different families
will have different preferences and opinions on what environment will best suit
their child, especially if that child has a disability. For all students,
whether they have a disability or not, a 'one size fits all' approach is not
necessarily the best. Differing views from parents and carers about the best
options for their children should always be respected.
The committee also notes that all schools in Australia are obliged by
the Standards to make reasonable accommodations to students with disability to
assist their access to education. The committee notes that the evidence
presented by witnesses and submitters demonstrated that far too often, this was
not the experience for students with disability.
Professional development for school staff
A key theme highlighted by multiple submitters and witnesses to this
inquiry was the importance of teachers and all school staff receiving training
in teaching practice for students with disabilities. As discussed in chapter 2,
many submitters and witnesses to this inquiry believed that too many teachers
were inadequately aware of issues surrounding the education of students with
disability, including the rights of students to an education and the necessity
of additional adjustments and support for some students.
While teacher preservice education standards differ from state to state,
the AEU's submission notes that many teachers report feeling underprepared when
it comes to educating students with disability: 37% of teachers thought that
the level of training and professional development they had undertaken gave them
the skills and knowledge to teach students with disability, while 63% said it
The AEU's nationwide survey of preservice training revealed that, while
most universities include a course on education of students with disabilities
in their teaching courses, only New South Wales requires accredited teaching
courses to include a stand-alone unit on special education.
To address this, the Gold Coast Dyslexia Support Group, for instance,
recommended that both pre-service and in-service training and development for
teachers should include information on 'identifying and supporting the range of
learning differences in a classroom', 'the importance of early identification
and early intervention for students 'at risk'' and 'the implementation of
appropriate adjustments for students with learning difficulties'.
The Autism Collective Research Centre's (Autism CRC) survey of parents,
teachers and specialists of students with autism found that the top two
barriers to students with autism's access to education identified were a lack
of funding for additional support and the lack of 'suitable education and
training for staff'. Noting, therefore, the benefits of additional training and
professional development for educators, they argued:
The capacity of Australian schools to deliver a quality
education to students with autism will be enhanced by better training and
professional development for teachers and other school staff. This will lead to
a more inclusive and accepting school community where diversity is recognised
and actively embraced. Teachers will have enhanced coping mechanisms and will
feel more satisfied and confident that they can manage and relate to the needs
of students with autism with access to more appropriate resources, training and
tools. They will feel more empowered to make a difference in children’s lives
as better facilitators of children’s learning. The educational approaches
utilised to enhance the learning of students with autism will also have a
broader application and will be able to be successfully applied and utilised
with all learners in classrooms using universal design for learning principles.
People with Disability Australia made some specific recommendations for
the types of additional education and development areas for teachers that would
benefit both teachers and students:
an emphasis on improving
[teachers'] knowledge and understanding of disability-related issues and
suitable curriculum design, skills assessment, positive behaviour support and
all training courses and
professional development programs for teachers and integration aides be
subsidised and compulsory, undertaken regularly and incorporated into general
education training rather than by way of separate disability–specific sessions;
increased resources to support
ensuring teaching programs include
exposure to direct and structured interaction with students with disability in
addition to formal instruction.
Mr Michael Ward, principal of Aspley East State School in Brisbane,
argued that professional development for teachers needs to be a priority, but
also that it needs to be done well and as an ongoing practice:
What I have discovered is that you cannot just send your
teachers to the latest autism workshop that is on down the road for half a day
and have them come back with the same two or three strategies that we have all
heard many, many times before. They need something on a different level to that
altogether. They need professional development that exposes them to the top
thinkers in this area in the country and even internationally. They need to be
challenged as professionals, engage in that higher level professional dialogue,
understand what the research is saying and really, I guess, be treated like
professionals, but engage as professionals who have something credible to say
themselves too. I think teachers have been treated quite badly over the years
in that regard, and their skills, knowledge and everyday experience of this
need to be included in the discussion, but they need to be exposed to that much
higher level discussion and research.
Teachers, of course, are not the only staff employed in the school
system, and therefore the committee regards it as important that this focused
professional development be made available and obligatory for all staff in
schools, including teachers' aides, administrative and support staff and anyone
else whose work brings them into contact with students on a regular basis. It
is vital that all those in the school system recognise the needs and rights of
students with disability and have the opportunity to develop their professional
skills in this way.
The committee was impressed to hear from witnesses that examples of
strong educational practice do exist in Australian schools, and commends those
individuals, schools and specialists who have prioritised these practices.
It is important to ensure that everyone in the school environment is
equipped with the best knowledge to meet the needs of students with disability.
For that reason, the committee notes that there is a clear need for teachers
and all school administrators to receive more-focused education on the rights
and needs of students with disability as part of their qualification process,
along with continued professional development throughout their career.
The committee heard from numerous witnesses that a problem in the
education of students with disabilities is the gap between research in the
field and practice in schools and classrooms. In short, while much research
exists on the best-practice approaches to teaching students with disability,
many of these practices have not yet become widespread in their use in
The Macquarie University Special Education Centre (MUSEC) made this case
based on research they undertook:
Research carried out by MUSEC with special education teachers
in Australia to determine the level of use of evidence-based instructional strategies
found that some evidence-based practices were used regularly, but many practices
that have been shown to be ineffective were also used weekly or more by about half
the teachers we surveyed. We also found a substantial minority of teachers reported
that they never or rarely used some effective strategies. Other research we have
carried out shows that schools may often use practices that have no research support
and that such practices may be supported or passively condoned by education authorities.
As long as schools and teachers continue to waste time and resources on interventions
that are known to be ineffective, in preference to those likely to be effective,
the education of students with disability will be compromised.
Similarly, Professor Rodger of the Autism CRC noted to the committee that
the 'complexity' of the issues raised by educating students with disability,
along with the time pressures on all teachers, leads to a 'research-practice
Professor Rodger also highlighted the extremely well-developed modules
and teaching resources developed through the Positive Partnerships program
which is funded by the federal government and provides:
professional development for teachers, principals and other
school staff to build their understanding, skills and expertise in working with
children and young people on the autism spectrum
workshops and information sessions for parents and carers of
school-age children and young people on the autism spectrum
a website providing online learning modules and other resources.
The consequence of this research-practice gap is that sub-optimal
teaching practices are still widely used in Australian schools. Education for
all students, but especially for those with disability, could be substantially
improved by a greater application of research findings and practical teaching
strategies demonstrated to lead to better educational outcomes.
The committee heard from multiple witnesses that the teaching methods
supported by research as being best practice for students with disability are
based on solid pedagogical evidence as being beneficial for all students. For
this reason, there should be a greater utilisation of these methods in all
As an example, MUSEC noted that:
There is considerable overlap between effective school
practices generally and the practices that improve the academic performance of
students with disability. Research-based tiered approaches such as Response to
Intervention (RTI), particularly for literacy instruction and Schoolwide
Positive Behaviour Intervention and Support (http://pbis.org/research/default.aspx),
provide a framework that supports all students. In these tiered approaches, all
students are screened and their progress towards clearly defined goals is
regularly monitored so that under-performance is identified and addressed
early. Research-based assessment and teaching strategies are in place for all
students, and are implemented with fidelity.
The Autism CRC, discussing their universal design for learning approach,
noted that the practices it entails are intended to be of benefit to all school
Many of Autism CRC's research projects are underway and
utilise universal design for learning approaches to address writing,
transitions, classroom structure and more enabling environments. Our research
projects aim to support all children in mainstream classrooms, not just those
on the autism spectrum. Many students need assistance with getting organised,
writing stories and making friends—again, not just those on the autism
spectrum. Hence, aids to learning form a part of a whole-of-classroom approach
rather than an additional responsibility for teachers directed to a few.
A parent and representative of the Gold Coast Dyslexia Support Group
spoke about some of the techniques they had encouraged teachers to adopt:
Less reliance on text. For example, in the high school, in a
history class, the normal way of delivering a particular piece of information
would be for the class to get a 15,000-word article and read it, summarise it
and hand it in. So when we spoke to the history teacher, who was on side,
instead of doing it that way, she gave the article to the children in groups.
Each of them read and discussed a paragraph of the article, then they all
discussed the whole article as a class and then they mind-mapped it. This was
just a suggestion from me; that all came from her. It is not a radical change,
really, and the children are still getting the same information, plus it is
more interesting for them. All the kids love being in that class.
Ms Karen Ross from the Gold Coast Dyslexia Support Group also mentioned
the DVD Outside the Square and described it as a great resource which 'every
school and teacher should have'.
Evidence therefore suggests that educational outcomes could be improved
for all students, regardless of whether or not they have a disability, by
greater application of research findings to classroom practice. Many of the
teaching strategies found to be helpful for students with disability would
benefit all students, and therefore should be encouraged.
The committee accepts the evidence presented to this inquiry which
suggests that the education of students with disability in Australian schools
could be substantially improved by closing the research-practice gap which
The committee further notes that good teaching strategies for students
with disability are often equally useful for all students, and therefore
encourages teachers and others in the school environment to recognise that some
practices currently considered adjustments for students with disability may in
fact become standard teaching practice for all students.
The committee notes that additional funding for support for students
with disability is a key aspect of education access and attainment. While
additional funding is necessary to improving educational outcomes, it is also
important to monitor and account for how that funding is used.
The committee recognises that the majority of research and evidence
presented to this inquiry supports the proposition that mainstream-based
inclusive education leads to the best outcomes for students. However, the
committee also notes that choice is important and that some families prefer,
for a variety of reasons, to enrol their children into special schools.
Following on from concerns raised earlier in this report, the committee
notes that providing teachers, both as part of their qualification process and
throughout their career, with additional education on the education of students
with disability would benefit both the teachers themselves and the students.
Improving access to such training and development should be made a priority.
The committee accepts that currently a substantial research-practice gap
exists in Australia. It commends those researchers seeking to improve the
educational outcomes of students with disability, and encourages all educators
to ensure that their teaching strategies are grounded in evidence-based
The committee recommends that a dedicated Disability Discrimination
Commissioner be reinstated to the Australian Human Rights Commission.
The Committee recommend that the government works with states,
territories and school systems to:
Establish a national approach to ending the bullying of students
with disability. This should be supported with programs and resources for
schools, teachers and students.
Make it mandatory for all initial teacher education courses to
ensure beginning teachers enter the classroom with best-practice skills in the
inclusion of students with disability. The government should also work with
states and territories to ensure current teachers, principals and support staff
are supported to develop inclusive education skills in areas such as universal
design for learning, differentiated teaching and cooperative learning.
Investigate the establishment a national qualification standard
for teacher aids and assistants to ensure they have the knowledge and skills
required to support learning for all students. States and territories should
also provide guidance on the role of support staff in inclusive classrooms.
Prioritise the development of a national approach to modifying
the curriculum for students with disability. This should include implementation
tools and professionals development support for teachers to ensure that all
students are supported to learn to their fullest potential.
Better support school systems, teachers and principals to
continually improve the accuracy and effectiveness of the Nationally Consistent
Collection of Data on School Students with Disability program.
In light of the limitations of the evidence presented, the
committee recommends the government work with states and territories to
establish a process for the collection and publication of information about
levels of access and attainment for students with disability. This should
include information about:
whether students attend school part or full time;
rates of home schooling and distance education;
rates of restrictive practices and seclusion;
suspension and expulsion rates;
availability of specialist support for teachers and principals;
workforce skills and the availability of professional development
in inclusive education for teachers and principals;
access to allied health and interdisciplinary support; and
bullying and wellbeing.
The committee recommends the government work with states,
territories, experts, stakeholders, school systems, parents and students to
establish a national strategy to improve the education of students with
disability. The strategy should aim to:
recognise all students with disability as learners and drive the
cultural change required to achieve this, particularly at a school leadership
define the goals and priorities for improving the educational
outcomes of students with disability, set clear timelines for their achievement
and report publically on progress;
increase school participation and access rates for students with
close the gap in Year 10 and Year 12 completion;
ensure all students with disability can access adjustments and
interdisciplinary support that will maximise their learning potential;
ensure all students with disability benefit from evidence-based,
best practice programs which lead to improvements in access and attainment;
improve the accountability at a system and student level for
ensuring better learning outcomes for students with disability;
support schools, teachers and principals to close the gap between
research and classroom practice;
establish best-practice ongoing professional development for
teachers, principals and others who work in the school system;
include students with disability and their families in the
development of the educational plan for their child, and encourage the
meaningful ongoing engagement of parents;
establish a national inclusion measure for schools; and
establish independent review and complaints mechanisms so
parents, teachers and students can have full confidence in the system.
The committee recommends the government works with states and
territories to end restrictive practices in schools, consistent with the
recommendations of the 2015 Senate Inquiry into violence, abuse and neglect
against people with disability in institutional and residential settings,
including the gender and age related dimensions, and the particular situation
of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability, and culturally
and linguistically diverse people with disability.
Senator Sue Lines
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